By Dominic McGrath, PA
Irish Senators have clashed with MLAs in Stormont during a committee appearance to discuss issues over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In a meeting between the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive Office Committee, Irish Senators insisted that the Government in Dublin had always tried to represent people on both sides of the border.
“The Irish Government is doing its best to advocate for all people on the island,” Fianna Fáil Senator and committee chair Lisa Chambers told a meeting of cross-party MLAs.
“The Taoiseach is very keen to make sure all citizens feel represented. The Irish Government are not elected by the people of Northern Ireland, but they try their best, in my view, to be a voice for the island at the Brexit table.
“Very much acknowledging that there is no political representation from Northern Ireland at the negotiation table,” she said.
That claim was rejected by DUP MLA Diane Dodds and UUP MLA John Stewart.
In a lengthy contribution, Ms Dodds told Irish politicians that it was not the Irish Government that represented the interests of her community.
“We don’t arrive out of a planet out of the blue,” she said.
“Not one unionist in this house supports the protocol, and we reflect the society we represent.
“It is the United Kingdom Government, and whether you like him or don’t like him, the negotiator in Brussels, Lord Frost, who will be negotiating on behalf of Northern Ireland.
“We should be careful in our use of language,” she warned.
“I get the feeling, many politicians from Dublin either ignore or don’t understand or simply want to whitewash over those facts.”
Mr Stewart, who stressed his party’s opposition to the protocol, said he had “never heard the Taoiseach or Tánaiste speak for unionism”.
Last week, the EU tabled a range of proposals aimed at cutting the red tape the protocol has imposed on moving goods from Britain to Northern Ireland.
However, the plan did not address a key UK demand — the removal of the oversight function of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the operation of the protocol.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to sidestep the major obstacle in the Brexit divorce talks — the Irish land border.
It achieved that by shifting regulatory and customs checks and processes to the Irish Sea.
But the arrangements have created new economic barriers on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Ms Chambers acknowledged that it remained a “fluid” situation as negotiations continue between Lord Frost and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
However, she insisted — in the face of opposition from some unionist representatives — that the Northern Ireland Protocol could be “brilliant” for the region.
“There’s huge potential. To be the only jurisdiction that has access to two huge markets,” she said.
Over the course of a two-hour meeting, politicians touched on the role of the European Court of Justice in the protocol arrangements, as well as the Government’s progress on providing EU Covid-19 certificates to Irish citizens in the North.
Elsewhere, the Irish politicians said it was regretful that the UK had decided to leave the Erasmus programme.
There was agreement on all sides that there was a “democratic deficit” facing Northern Ireland, with politicians lacking a clear way to make representations on post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Sinn Féin’s Niall O Donnghaile told the committee that his party had hoped that the North could have benefited from the two extra European Parliament seats given to Ireland after Brexit.
He suggested that “bespoke arrangements” might be needed to ensure that the voice of Northern Ireland could be heard in EU institutions.
“I don’t see a solution on the table, as of yet, as to how we provide that democratic input,” Ms Chambers acknowledged.
And while both sides committed to another joint meeting in the future, divisions and differing perspectives over the outworking of the UK’s exit from the EU overshadowed discussions.
Irish representatives repeatedly said that the visit to Stormont was an opportunity to hear different views, which could be reflected back to the Dublin Government and to Brussels.
“How do you suggest we engage more or learn more? You’ll appreciate, we’re going to come from a different position,” Fianna Fáil’s Malcolm Byrne asked Ms Dodds at one point.
“I think the position of unionism, to be honest, has been really well articulated over the last number of months,” Ms Dodds said.
She said that anyone who is actually listening to unionism can be in no doubt that the Northern Ireland Protocol lacks support.
Ms Dodds said that the agreement struck by London, Dublin and Brussels had abandoned some of the key consent principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I think it is this lack of listening. It’s almost like they’ll have to, and excuse the colloquialism, ‘suck it and see’. That cannot be right.”
Ms Chambers, in a long back-and-forth with the DUP MLA, defended the decision-making of the Government.
The former Fianna Fáil Brexit spokesperson rejected the suggestion that the protocol was foisted on Northern Ireland and presented as the only option for the region.
“There are alternatives, there was a choice. But the choice on the table was quite unpalatable,” she said.
The priority of the Government, she said, was avoiding a border on the island of Ireland.
“It wasn’t given to Northern Ireland as a ‘take it or leave it’. That wasn’t the position of the Irish Government.”
Executive Office Committee chair Sinead McLaughlin, as the committee meeting drew to a close, likened the divisions to a famous scene from the Derry Girls TV programme.
“I’ve kind of got this premonition and vision of the Derry Girls programme where the blackboard was up and what Protestants like and what Catholics like,” she joked.
“I don’t think anybody likes the protocol. What we really don’t like and what we really believe is that Brexit does damage Northern Ireland.”